Seafarers still at sea as government delays plan on crew changeover and repatriation from overseas

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on April 15, 2020

Representative Image   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thousands of distraught Indian seafarers anxiously waiting on their ships at the outer anchorage of the country’s ports ready to disembark on completing their contracts and those stranded in similar situations in various parts of the globe due to lockdown restrictions had pinned high hopes on the government offering some relief to help reunite with their families after months at sea.

Seafarers and their families have been piling pressure on the government in the last few days to allow them to sign off from their ships while the global shipping industry has been pushing for government support to facilitate crew changeovers in the midst of the rampaging pandemic by designating seafarers as “key workers” providing an “essential service”.

While the shipping ministry and the Directorate General of Shipping (DG Shipping) have been giving the right signals to the stake holders, this has not translated into action so far.

The revised guidelines issued by the ministry of home affairs early on Wednesday morning on the do’s and dont’s during the extended lockdown period till May 3 did offer a glimmer of hope.

“Movement of staff and contractual labour for operations of railways, airports/ air carriers, seaports/ ships/ vessels, land ports and inland container depots (ICDs) is allowed on passes being issued by the local authority on the basis of authorizations issued by the respective designated authority of the railways, airports, seaports, land ports and ICDs,” sub-section 8 of Section 12 of the MHA guidelines said.

The industry and the stranded seafarers hailed the decision saying that it “recognised the critical role of seafarers and make them eligible for passes so they can sign on/off from ships”.

However, shipping ministry sources said that it was too early to say whether this will help the cause as ‘seafarers’ have not been mentioned specifically in the MHA guidelines.

Ministry sources said that it was concerned with the logistics, safety and health challenges of allowing seafarers to sign on/off from ships or bringing them back from overseas, the domestic travel and the mandatory 14-day quarantine in the larger context of combating the spread of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, an alliance of leading ship owners and managers, concerned about seafarer welfare and the viability of ocean supply chains in the midst of coronavirus restrictions has developed detailed crew changeover risk assessment plans.

However, they said that the plan needs urgent political and regulatory support to enact them.

The alliance, representing more than 1,500 vessels and over 70,000 seafarers, includes D/S Norden, Grieg Star, Reederei Nord, Dynacom, V.Group, Wilhelmsen Ships Service, Pacific Carriers Limited (PCL), Magsaysay, Augustea, Columbia Ship Management, Inchcape Shipping Services and Synergy Group.

The current coronavirus policy as applied to shipping is a potentially disastrous “own goal” that threatens not only the mental health and human rights of seafarers, but also the viability of ocean supply chains on which those in lockdown depend, the alliance said in a statement.

More than 100,000 seafarers are presently marooned at sea because coronavirus shutdowns worldwide are preventing them from entering or transiting countries and/or finding flights on which to return home.

The alliance has developed port viability and detailed seafarer risk assessment plans which it is convinced will mitigate the risk of coronavirus infections during essential crew changeovers. It is now urging immediate governmental and intergovernmental action to enable the resumption of crew changes including the designation of seafarers as ‘key workers’.

Measures aimed at protecting society were never intended to prevent key workers from carrying out tasks essential to the ongoing wellbeing of society. These policies were also not intended to be detrimental to the welfare of key workers such as seafarers, says Captain Rajesh Unni, CEO and Founder of Singapore-based ship manager Synergy Group.

“Our collective aim as responsible owners and managers employing tens of thousands of seafarers is to pursue every means possible to get crew back to their families,” Unni said.

Collective crew changes are viable now

Members believe collective crew changes at identified ports are a feasible short-term aim even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic if State assistance is made available.

The alliance has identified key ports where collective crew changes can potentially be organised. The ports include Singapore, Houston, Rotterdam, Gibraltar, Jebel Ali, Fujairah, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

“As well as identifying ports we have also developed a rigorous risk assessment methodology and drawn up action plans that we, as employers of seafarers and organisers of crew logistics, can implement to mitigate the risks of infection,” said Captain Unni.

“Governments must act and assign ports in proximity to suitable airports so that crew changes can be resumed. This really is a time bomb. Its imperative governments recognize this and take action,” Unni added.

Minimal risk to port states

The alliance is confident that collective crew changes can be managed at minimal risk.

“Whilst we would have to work on the micro level to deal with the logistics of transporting a seafarer from his home to the vessel and vice versa, matters such as access to airlines and airports and immigration clearances are political decisions,” the alliance said.

The world relies on seafarers to deliver everything they need including medicines, food and energy. The shipping industry and seafarers are now relying on the world’s politicians to respect their human rights and protect their welfare in these difficult times, the group said.

The crew change time bomb

Every month around 100,000 seafarers are rotated on/off vessels worldwide in accordance with international safety and working hours regulations. However, the closure of borders and strict quarantine rules are preventing crew changes from being completed in accordance with employment contracts and international conventions including the Maritime Labour Convention, leaving thousands stranded at sea for periods far beyond their contracts.

“Seafarers have limitations on the amount of time they can work onboard a vessel which is governed by the vessel Flag State,” said David Wonfor, Vice President, Global Head of Managed Services, Inchcape Shipping Services.

Even if this period can be extended in exceptional circumstances, it can be detrimental to the mental health and wellbeing of crew to work for such extended periods without any downtime, he said.

“Seafarers who are now stranded ashore and cannot re-join vessels will not be earning any income and in many cases are the only breadwinner in their families,” Wonfor added. Ends/

Published on April 15, 2020

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